How to Prune Fruit Trees

By on December 27, 2012

You’re ready to plant a fruit tree—but how do you decide on the best pruning and training system? We’ve got easy answers for you.

The University of California says pruning and training your fruit tree will improve it five ways:

*  Keep it a manageable size
*  Grow larger fruit
*  Ensure a yearly crop
*  Let light and air into the lower branches
*  Renew the vigor of the tree

The three most popular shapes for fruit trees are Central Leader, Vase (or Open Center), and Modified Central Leader. Certain kinds of fruit trees are most productive with certain shapes. Some kinds of fruit trees can be trained in almost any way. We’ll show you the three shapes and list the trees that work best in that shape.

In our video series, Tricia prunes in each of these shapes—just follow the links below to watch the pertinent video.

For complete information about fruit trees, please consult our research-based videos and articles that are collected for you in Fruit Tree Central.

Central Leader training system

This diagram from the University of Missouri Extension shows how to prune in the Central Leader system from planting on through the third year.

Watch our video to see Tricia prune and train a fruit tree with a Central Leader.

A Central Leader shape is a conical, “Christmas tree” that is tall and tapered. The shape give the highest production, due to the light and air circulation, but it grows too tall to be practical for most home orchards. A home gardener can use this training system, though, when working with a dwarf tree.

A successful shape for: Apple, pear, persimmon & pecan trees.

Vase or Open Center training system

The University of Missouri Extension illustrates pruning in the Vase (or Open Center) system from planting on through the third year.

Tricia prunes and trains a Vase shaped fruit tree in our first video.

The Vase is the simplest shape for beginning orchardists to prune, and allows plentiful sunlight in its open center. The drawbacks are weak branches that need props when bearing fruit, and heavy shade that can develop from leaves on the upper branches of the tree.

A traditional shape for: Almond, apricot, cherry, fig, nectarine, olive, peach, pear, persimmon, plum & pomegranate trees.

Modified Central Leader training system

Modified Central Leader is the compromise shape. Here is a diagram of how to prune a tree according to this training system during its first four years from the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Watch our video to see how Tricia prunes and trains a fruit tree in this popular, all-purpose style. 

Combining the best features of both the Central Leader and Vase systems (sturdy trunk and central light) the Modified Central Leader is the default choice. Easier to harvest than a tall Central Leader tree, and with stronger branches than an Open tree, this is also the best choice for all fruit trees in the sunny Southwest.

A good choice for: Almond, apple, apricot, cherry, fig, nectarine, olive, peach, pear, pecan, persimmon, plum, pluot, pomegranate & walnut trees.

What do these three training systems have in common? They all require sharp pruning tools! Here’s our video on how to sharpen your tools this winter, and our article that explains how to keep petroleum off your tools and out of your organic garden.

Do you need to replace any of your pruning tools? We test pruning tools in our own orchards and recommend this select group for you, in a variety of price ranges. In the Modified Central Leader video Tricia uses the new Corona ComfortGEL handled 3/4” Bypass Pruners and 30” Bypass Loppers.

For more information on pruning, we offer some favorite reading: Pruning Made Easy by Lewis Hill and the Storey Country Wisdom booklet, Pruning Trees, Shrubs & Vines.

Now, go order your fruit trees, and you’ll know just how to prune and train them when they arrive at your door.

  Comments (12)


While we have been purchasing new trees, our new property has many old, existing fruit bearing trees that have not been cared for for a long time. We don’t yet even know exactly what we have, but the fallen leaves look like stone fruit and our garbage man says we have the best plums on the planet with our old apricot almost as tasty!  Any advice on cleaning up and pruning an old, neglected orchard in Auburn, Ca?

Posted by Cindy and Roger on Feb. 15, 2013 at 7:11:48 PM

Cindy and Roger, Sounds like you have some treasures there! Don’t prune this season since you don’t know which tree is which. Apricots should not be pruned in winter since they are especially susceptible to water borne diseases. We have a video about summer pruning for apricots and cherries What you can do now is good orchard sanitation of clearing up litter where pests might hide. Map the orchard and when the summer fruit comes, keep track of which tree is which. Also, we have an excellent book by UC Davis, The Home Orchard that will be your new best friend!

Posted by on Feb. 15, 2013 at 9:54:46 PM


I have been hearing mixed messages in pruning.  What is the purpose of leaving 3 ft between each set of scaffold branches in the central leader pruning?  Do I need to leave space between scaffolds in the modified central leader style, or should the branches be evenly spaced all the way up?  I have semi dwarf pear trees in KY.

Posted by Barbara on Mar. 14, 2013 at 5:56:02 PM

Spacing has a lot to do with keeping the tree open for air circulation and light.  It also makes it easier to spray the trees if needed.
Pruning rules are general and not absolute.  Pears require a lot of pruning as they grow - they respond with a lot of new branches after every prune.  The idea is to create primary branches that are 8-10” apart so that there are no weak crotches at the trunk.

For more info on Modified Central Leader pruning, here is a university article

Posted by on Mar. 27, 2013 at 10:46:45 AM


My wife and moved into an 18th century home that has two very large Bartlett pear trees, one HUGE Japanese pear and two apple trees of unknown type. All are over grown, all produced an abundance of fruit, but are tangles of branches (some broke)...where do I begin in terms of pruning? All the trees peaked in fruit about mid/late October…we had TONS of fruit. We line in SouthEastern Massachsetts. We are also looking to plant a peach orchard , so we will need to talk about when to order trees / plant as well. Pleas help!

Pete and Catherine Condrick, Middleboro, MA

Posted by Peter on Dec. 24, 2013 at 11:48:21 AM


Question:  All my young fruit trees are budding along with everything else in my yard here in New Mexico.  This is unusually early.  They do need to be pruned.  Are they still considered dormant?

Posted by Dana on Jan. 04, 2014 at 10:55:49 AM

Hello Dana,

If they are budding but not blooming go ahead and prune. If they are blooming then you can wait and summer prune things.

Posted by on Jan. 15, 2014 at 9:21:28 AM

Hello Peter,

Congratulations on your new home. Those old trees often can be renovated. Here are three great guides one from Penn State, one from U. Maine, and one from Oregon State. They are written on apple trees but pear and apple trees are closely related and pruned the same way. Good luck with your trees!

Posted by on Jan. 15, 2014 at 10:14:09 AM


I’m living in zone 9 or zone 10 in southern California ( zip 92618). If I have apricot, apple, cherry and pear trees, is it OK to prune these trees in the mid of September when the temperature still in the 80-90 F in day time and 50-60 F at night?

Posted by VIVIAN LIU on Sep. 23, 2014 at 8:01:06 PM

Typically you should prune apricot and cherry trees in the summer (after fruiting) and prune apples and pears in the winter, after the leaves have dropped.

Posted by Suzanne at Peaceful Valley on Oct. 07, 2014 at 12:51:52 PM


i have a question about spreading branches using clothespins.
do the clothespins leave a whether indent on the trunk or the branches?

Posted by ali on Oct. 06, 2016 at 3:43:00 PM

Ali, Using a clothespin as a spreader really should not impact the tree branches. You really are only leaving them on for a short amount of time.

Posted by Suzanne at on Oct. 07, 2016 at 12:08:04 PM

+ Show More Comments

Leave a Comment